Retablo

Pishtaco by Nicario Jiménez

THE MAN arrived one night in a shuddering and dying 350 Ford, under an infinite, star-studded sky. It seemed like no one would be able to distinguish his features, nor his way of walking. They wouldn’t be able to make out his motives or guess what his hopes were either, because the night still lingered. Nor would they be able to remember where the old truck had travelled, on whose front, justifying its continual slow climbs, was written:

I GO SLOW BUT I GET THERE

Only the driver heard his hoarse voice up close and noticed his vague silhouette when he stopped the vehicle on top of Tambo de Nieve Mountain to put water in the overheating radiator. But perhaps not even he would have noticed because in Tuca, at the end of the highway, people arrive from different towns of the Pampas River, coming from or going to Ayacucho: from Pumaranra, Espite, Totos, Veracruz, and even Chuschi. What I do know is that the man got out of the truck once it tumbled down Tambo de Nieve and stopped far down in the valley where Tuco is, a region long past its usefulness, boiling over with farmers and their proclamations as temporary sellers on Saturday and Sunday festivals. He got down in one jump—they had hardly opened the gates—after asking someone to give him a hand to lower his heavy bag. He didn’t wait for the sun to come up, nor did he approach the women there. They had unabashed smiles, with cups of instant coffee and cane liquor ready for those who wished to ward off the cold that sticks to your hands and blows into your face.

He started on the long walk while still under the cover of darkness, as if escaping sinister pursuers, keeping his distance from barking dogs and the jokes of early morning travelers who were untying the hobbles of restless mules. Morning arrived when he went over the last slope toward another summit of perpetual snow: Descansadero del Cóndor.

The man crossed the peak. He had the face of someone who is at the door of the promised land that no one promised him, except the road that his will opens for him. “Finally,” he said. He located a good rock to sit on, in a curve where he could see gullies and roughness cut in the infinite horizon. It was even clearer in the incline, a majestic view that roused impenetrable emotions like the initial effects of a strong liquor or the fuzziness of an antidepressant. He took a pocket knife from his bag full of pamphlets, notebooks with diagrams and dates, pens, sardines, packages of crackers, clothes, and a bag of bread. He opened a can of Portola and had breakfast, taking his time, until he was full. He began walking again.

What at first seemed an easy descent changed into capricious crannies, until he had to stop before crossing a spring. When he tried to drink its clear water, it caused throbbing pain in both temples and in his forehead. He had arrived at a place whose name would later become familiar, La Aguada del Cura, because it would have to serve as a miraculous hiding place and would be perfect for ambushes. Afterwards, he walked between granite boulders, looking forward toward another path where travelers were climbing up, urging on their pack donkeys and mules. Even though they would surely be from Epite, Paras or Pumaranra, villages from the other shore of the Pampa—”The great and enchanting Pampas River,” they had said—, now it was late morning and it would be too late to be heading toward Tuco Fair.

Further down, all of a sudden, he remembered his radio receiver. He took it from his magic bag and tuned in to the headlines of a broadcast from the capital. “The same crap,” he said, listening to the same old editorials praising General Velasco Alvarado and his reforms. “Sons of bitches . . .” He changed the station while continuing down into the deep descent, causing his knees to shake. He heard huainos and mulizas, folk songs from the mountains. On the voyage it evoked images similar to those he had before his eyes now, on so many journeys through the Peruvian Andes. When he saw the Pampas River in all its greatness, he was astonished by the blue, slightly green color of its water and fragments of a poem came to his head: I’ve gotten used to you like the river has to the color of the sky . . . ; and his lips almost formed the name of a woman recorded in his memory, a passionate name, far away now, making him think of the beginning of another song:

I wrote your name in the sand

I wrote your name in the snow

A wave came and erased everything

The wind came and blew it all away

Right as the sun was about to mark the limit of another day, he saw a sheep pastor. He asked the young, dark-skinned local with thick lips and inquisitive eyes for the whereabouts of Pumaranra and the quickest way to get there.

“Is it still far?”

“You’re close now, sir.”

“About how much farther?”

“When you finish this stretch, after you turn around to go up again against the current of the river, you go up and up a slope and you get to a green place with brooms, molles, eucalyptus, some houses, and you’ll probably hear kids playing, cawing like hawks. From there you’ll see Pumaranra. If you hurry you’ll arrive in the evening. If not stay down below, in Aqowayqo. I’ll be there later to get my goats and sheep, sir.”

“Will there be anyone who can put me up for the night?”

“Look for Doña Eufrosina Huamaní. She has a lot of moles, with a green cleaning cloth and Sietevidas shoes. She’s my little mama. Ask her, sir, and she’ll put you up for the night. My dad is out doing errands so he’ll arrive late. He’s deputy of the neighborhood. Aqowayqo is a neighborhood . . .”

The man thanked him and continued on his way, but as soon as the sun hid behind the other side of a mountain that grew disproportionately according to the distance he went into the valley, he thought it best to stay the night there as the young man had recommended.

It was already dark when the owner of the lodging arrived. The man had the strong odor of coca, dust and sheep, in addition to his surprising talkativeness in imperfect, but understandable Spanish. The traveler had gotten used to how people spoke in that area.

“And what wind brought you to these lands? What’s your name?”

“I’m from Huamanga, they sent me to help with the literacy program. I need to get to Pumaranra. It’s the first village I’m supposed to go to.”

“Ah ha. Then you’re with Don Velasco, the president.”

“I guess you could say that . . .”

“But sir, in Pumaranra the people are pretty much screwed. Excuse me, but they hate Don Velasco like he had taken their good women one by one until they were fickle whores. They hate SINAMOS too, to the death. I recommend you be careful when you get there. Notable people in the town are Faustino Melgar, Serapio Araujo, Roman Zamora and I can’t remember any more right now. More than any of them, Faustino Melgar thinks the Agrarian Reform will make it here and he hates Don Velasco more than Fausto Amorin, who scares everybody. Don Fausto is the owner of a ranch on the other side of Pumaranra, almost at the border of Apurímac.”

“Yeah?”

“But they’re not the only ones who hate Don Velasco. Simple people, rough people like me hate him, because shit, there’s people who say that SINAMOS is that same as drought, as the hail that kills our crops. They think of SINAMOS whenever any stranger arrives dressed like he’s from the city, sir.”

“This is all new to me, Don Eufrasio.”

“But why would they send someone to help out with literacy in Pumaranra? With there being bigger towns, because this little village doesn’t even pass as a community on the map now that Urankancha is the district center. Before, we went to take red salt rock from Urankancha, when it was barren without even a pair of shanties. Ever since Don Amorin came a couple years ago to mine salt and make it his, he helped the neighborhood grow. Pumaranra isn’t anything now.”

“What do you mean isn’t anything?”

“Well, Pumaranra is just a town in decadence where the Devil’s kin walk loose wagging their tails from their asses and provoking a festival of wickedness. Authorities no longer allow people to exchange bushels of corn, wheat, wool or potatoes from neighboring towns in return for usufruct from the salt mine. And I say, literacy now? And what does Don Velasco want from Pumaranra?”

The next day, he was sweating abundantly in an almost imperceptible slope, bordered by prickly pear cactus, alders, and apple trees. He went against the direction of the current, very close now, full of crystal clear water nesting voracious trout, magnificent despite the dry season, over a bed of slabs and rocks polished by the current. He looked at his watch: ten in the morning and the sun was burning. He crossed a shallow creek. Going over a hill, he made out the first houses in Pumaranra. He stopped for a second, then went and sat on a rock where he could look at it in all its glory, the town he had searched for even in dreams. There it was, silent “like a man humiliated by the weight of the offense.” Pumaranra. Pumaranra. He sighed with all the air in his lungs and a wide smile spread across his inscrutable face. It was as if he had arrived, at last, to the sacred land where his hopes (ancestral, thousand-year-old hopes) would become reality.

There, directly in front, was the only house with two floors. It stood out among the rest and would belong to one of the two or three notable people that the man had clearly in his mind. To the left a large, old hanging bridge could be seen, with boards weaved together with wire. Four great, thick cables were tied to two supports made of stone and mortar at each end. From the town (perhaps a hundred adobe houses with tile or corrugated iron roofs) trails went obliquely to the left and right, disappearing or appearing, scaling the mountain streams between wild trees whose names and their relation to men’s hearts he would know some time later. In the interwoven foothills or in the creases of the ravines he saw clouds of smoke floating into the sky. He heard barks and bellows which indicated the existence of numerous communities, neighborhoods and ranches.

He remained seated, almost crouched, in the position of a stalking puma. He didn’t eat breakfast; he had already had it before leaving his lodging, hours earlier, taken care of by the kindness of the Deputy of Aqowayqo. Closer to his vision, in hollows and slopes, people were busy sowing alfalfa, between the mooing of bulls and cows. He also saw horses and donkeys in stubble and corn husk. “This part of the world will be my scene,” he thought. He got up again and went to the road. Opening his arms he reaffirmed the width of a bitterly effusive smile that spread across his happy face.

When he stepped onto the first boards of the hanging bridge, some 100 meters long (the rapid movement of the river gave him vertigo), he saw an older man in front of him getting off of a tall, black mule. A boy did the same on his speckled hazelnut horse. As the visitor came close to them, recovering a little from his vertigo, he said a few words:

“I’ve got a question, if you have a minute, before you go.”

“Of course,” the older man said, “but let me ask, where are you from good man? What’s your name?”

The man stopped short, making use of his quick-wittedness, in the earlier recommendations of the Deputy of Aqowayqo and said, “I’m from the Regional Agricultural Office in Ayacucho. I’m a surveyor and veterinarian.”

“It’s a pleasure to speak with you, but you should have sent a telegram beforehand so you could have come on mule as far as Tuco. You shouldn’t have come on foot alone, sir.”

“It was a last minute decision in the office. It doesn’t matter though, I’m here.”

“And what were you wanting to ask?”

“Could you tell me the name of the Deputy of Pumaranra so I could let him know I’m here, find out about the local epidemics and stay a few days?”

“It’s Justo Rojas.”

Then he went on, determined, down a street that widened more and more the closer he got to the town center. He had said he was a veterinarian in order not to have any sudden setbacks from the beginning.

The Deputy of Pumaranra was a frail, short man, with a snub nose and the appearance of someone who is often around disagreeable odors.

“Yes sir, I’m the deputy,” he said, “but to receive you here we have to have a council. It’s not easy, just wait for a while,” he said and left it up to his woman to serve the stranger something. “I’ll tell Don Serapio Araujo and Don Faustino Melgar, our telegraphist. They’re well-known men,” the Deputy announced and before leaving.

He came back at the end of an hour with the certainty that after lunch there had been a reunion in the town council, even though, he affirmed, speaking in his right, “neither the authorities nor Don Faustino Melgar agreed that Pumananra should have a teacher. I haven’t been able to advise Don Serapio Araujo, the other knowledgeable townsperson, because he’s in Qawrawa at his San Jacinto ranch.” The visitor wanted to tell the Deputy that he only had to carry out his role as government representative and let him work without hindrance. But he didn’t protest. He would wait for an opportune time to appeal to this reason.

The town hall was an old, two-story house made of brick with a tiled gable roof. On the ground floor there was a spacious room. There he could see a group of townspeople who were seated on benches while a thick, dark-skinned man with a heavy moustache and showy straw hat got ready to occupy the seat and table. He had the notable last name of Melgar. Before hearing the cue to occupy the bench next to him, the visitor realized that Pumaranra wasn’t the village he had imagined: the common people didn’t greatly differ, at least in skin color, from the ones with money. Nor were they so humble or anything similar in spirit to those who arrived in Huamanga from different towns looking for work, who stayed in the city to fulfill the only occupation at hand: carrying enormous bulks, like heavy mountains, from the market to the distant neighborhoods straining like starving beasts through the upward paths from Huancasolar to Belén or towards Pampa del Arco. In a brief sociological observation, he affirmed that they were mestizo, very poor yet carrying out an existence worthy to be called human in some way. Only the wide brimmed, straw hat distinguished the prominent citizen from “the common men.”

The deputy began the meeting and immediately let the traveler speak. He talked about his reason for coming and he showed them his credentials as a teacher, as well as his national identity card. Then Faustino Melgar, the telegraphist, spoke, making it clear that he understood the tricks of the messengers of the Velazquez regime for his evil plans. A long, endless speech ensued insulting the de facto government and especially the president.

“The only thing that bastard wants is to sell the homeland to the communists. The joke of the Agrarian Reform and other procurements aren’t in favor of the farmers like some devils believe, but to impose a life of wild animals.” He continued to ramble on for the good part of an hour, speaking for “the good farmers.” The traveler’s mind began to wander by the time Faustino Melgar was ready to finish. “To finish with this ridiculousness,” he said, directing himself to the visitor, “we don’t want any teachers to help with literacy, nor anyone similar. We’re fine with a teacher that has carried out his work as an educator for years. Besides, the majority of us know how to read well enough to be able to sign our names. Let’s see you, Doc!” he suddenly shouted at a local with striped clothes who was there out of curiosity. The little man came closer, ridiculously obedient, and signed his signature at first sight with a steady hand. Faustino Melgar, authoritarian, supported himself in the decisive test that he had just finished giving. There was warning in his voice, “Even though you aren’t to blame, we ask you from a friend to a friend that you leave by the same road you came if you don’t want us to tie you up and mount you backwards on a wild ass with firecrackers tied to its tail. We’ll send it to hell so you have a place well ready for your dear president, that pig Velasco.” But he still wasn’t done, adding, “Did you know, professor, that the communists fight to share their women with their neighbors, to fuck their own sisters and even their mothers? Do you read, professor, the magazine Selecciones? You should, to become more humane. I recommend it, from a friend to a friend.”

It wasn’t the town, then, which the stranger had to convince, nor its authorities, but the citizen with the last name of Melgar if he wanted to stay at least a couple days here. The speaker still wasn’t done. “So that you see how good the people of Pumaranra really are, the authorities will provide dinner and a bed, smelling of a country girl, so you don’t miss the warmth of your home, and a bottle of cane liquor so you go without novelty, very early. We wouldn’t want any girls talking to you because perhaps you would get used to her and stay, and that is exactly what the people of Pumaranra don’t want. We will let him stay the night in the guesthouse of the local town hall. This town burns when there is occasion, sir. You say your institution is called INFOLIT? After all, the last word is yours . . .”

It got dark. He ate dinner in the Deputy’s house. Then, he was escorted by the same Deputy to the room where a rustic wood cot waited for him covered with sheepskin. Willows, brooms and peach trees began to exhale their fresh fragrances over the walls which lined the streets in the young, clear and warm night.

He said bye with a firm handshake, threw himself down on the bed almost immediately and tuned his little radio to a waltz. He was tired. A placid sleepiness overtook him and made him turn off the radio and put out the candle that lit up the room, attracting termites. But he had hardly closed his eyes when he heard the brutal sound of a rock thrown against the door of the local town hall. He gave a start, but quickly fell back asleep.

The man dreamed of a winding road seeded with thistle and azolla in the difficulty of an infinite slope. He was no longer aware of holes in the fluctuations of images that his disturbed brain matter generated.

And the life that he led became confused. He was the university professor again, who walked from town to town “in search of knowledge.” He went with the company of students. A foreign research student stood out because of his size and the color of his skin, who liked to chew coca leaves and tried to speak Quechua “to better understand the Andean heart.” Is he from the country of Gamal Abdel Nasser or from the Great Country of the North? They are tired and carry heavy rifles. The day is red-hot and the rivers flow upwards in infinite paths. The snowy mountains burn in enormous tongues of fire, the foothills tremble, and their hearts beat inside their chests. There is great restlessness that rips apart the insides because everything visible changes, turns around, disrupts their sense of existence. They go down the back of a hill now. Little by little, the descent becomes impossible to walk.

Suddenly everyone slips and falls into the middle of a town. The meeting that takes place there divides into irreconcilable factions. There are bloody knives, there is skin ripped to shreds, there are flayed bodies, there are shouts of horror. Soon they are caught and defenseless; ropes are tied to their entire bodies, resembling iron cables. They are handed over to the leader of a political office. Some of his companions express regret at being on his side at the top of their lungs. Inexplicably, he’s next to a dark-skinned man with a straw hat and thick moustache: there’s no doubt, it’s the ineffable Faustino Melgar (the same man who had offered him the smells of a Pumaranran girl to spend a comfortable night of fasting) accompanying him in such excessive travesty. The police chief asks him questions. He only understands one: “What is the essential problem in Peru?” No one responds, only him, overcoming the difficulty of speaking from the bitter ball that rises in his throat. He says, “The earth.” Suddenly, one of his students, adding his baritone voice to that of the apprentice, dares to answer, “The Indian.” The police chief, who is now the judge with a covered face, laughs and gives the sentence: “The three shall be stoned to death!” Then, in a sarcastic voice, he affirms, “The only problem with Peru is how to clear the Indians and rebels from its ground forever.” And he picks up an enormous rock to squash the misunderstood Faustino Melgar and his two students, who lie on the sacrificial pyre with their hands tied . . .

But in this instant, the resounding and dry blow of a rock was thrown against the door where he was sleeping. He woke up violently and heard a warning, “You SINAMOS shit! You’re gonna die! Suck my balls you bastard! Leave and get the fuck out, carajo!” His body, used to these types of threats, stood ready for the outcome. He still smiled and understood that he had chosen the wrong alibi. From now on, he wouldn’t try to pass as a teacher. “But these are simple, stupid drunks,” he said to himself when some minutes had passed and he calmed down. These iconoclasts, nevertheless, returned to charge by throwing a bottle at the little window of his room, shattering it. He lit the candle and turned on his little radio. It was almost four in the morning. The attackers, seeing the light come on, ran. “Fucking bullies,” he said. Then he went back to sleep.

When he woke up the day was already clearing. A genuine party of yells and warbling threatened the morning. He got up, took a shot from the bottle of the good Pumaranran cane liquor, and got ready to be on his way. But when he tried to open the door, he realized that they had made him prisoner with the impassibility of a lock. As well as he could, he rigged a piece of iron with the idea of breaking the lock, convinced that what was happening to him was not a trap, but just a stupid joke of the iconoclasts who hadn’t let him sleep. When he looked up through the little, crowded window to the corners of the square where the town hall was, he saw that, led by Faustino Melgar with his enormous hat, they were bringing an untamed donkey. Its neck was tied with ropes but they weren’t completely able to control it because the animal was bucking and moving about as if the devil was in his body and they were submitting it to an exorcism ceremony.

At first he didn’t understand why they were bringing the donkey to the town hall where he was locked up. But they fell from grace in the way the young and old men were trying to tie what looked like a plastic bag to its tail. Among shouts of joy, they overpowered the donkey until it was temporarily pacified and they led it toward the room where the man was, now completely aware of his reality. They arrived at the door, opened it, let him leave and pleasantly invited him to approach the donkey and try to mount it. Before his negative response and disposition to defend himself by force, they subjected him with a leather lasso, wrapping him from his feet to his head. Then, they put him on the donkey and tied him to it tightly. They lit the firecrackers right away, tightly tied to the donkey’s tail, and freed it from its tether. The animal got up in a frenzy, as much from the deafening noise of the firecrackers as from the enormous weight that it felt on its back for the first time.

It flew like a bullet through the street that went towards the hanging bridge, giving mortal kicks and bucking like a cornered animal. Before arriving at the bridge, it ran over a man and a woman who had the misfortune of not getting out of the way in time, leaving a dog frozen which had been disposed to bite, and arrived at the bridge as if it was trotting on solid ground. On the other side of the river the man lost his cap, then his bag, then his shoes and he tilted dangerously when the donkey got close to the abysmal roads. But it wouldn’t be the hour of judgement for him just yet. Before getting close to the cliff, the animal bucked and kicked hard into the air and he was thrown loose, landing at the foot of an enormous pepper tree, shattered to pieces. Upon waking up from a light loss of consciousness, he thought he had a head injury. However, he was able to get up and realized that his jawbone was almost unhinged, his knees gone, his teeth broken, and his septum crushed while the men who had given him this grand farewell from Pumaranra were dying of laughter in the distance, holding their stomachs. The man, realizing he was still alive, was happy. “While there is life there is hope,” he said, even though he felt the most unbearable helplessness to find himself in this situation. After all, these were the tests one should subject oneself to if he wanted to make his millennial dreams reality, to make the kingdom of liberty prevail over the kingdom of necessity.

“Mother fuckers!” he swore, “I’ll get them all back for this . . . With interest.”

But the exertion of becoming bitter and promising vengeance made him faint. His eyes and body sailed among black clouds, very dark. He might have stayed like that, without ever waking, if it wasn’t for the timely help that a man and his small son brought him, arriving as if fallen from heaven. It was the same man with whom he had spoken the day before, when he’d arrived in this village for the first time loaded with illusions and the idea that his utopian dream would be possible. It had almost been broken by the fury of a wild ass.

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